Mickey Rathbun: Color for the winter garden

  • Cornus alba Sibirica - Dogwood - stems showing winter bark colours gardendata—Getty Images/iStockphoto

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Come spring, there are many flowering plants to choose from to make your landscape pop with color. But in the dead of winter, what can you depend on?

Chances are, birds have feasted on your bright red winterberries, leaving bare gray branches. Over wintering grasses still grace our gardens with fountain-like billows of bleached-blond fronds. Our evergreen shrubs are keeping up the good fight against the grays and browns of winter. But when you’re hungry for brighter colors, the offerings are slim.

This is the time of year when red twig dogwoods come into their own. Red twig dogwoods, like dogwood trees, belong to the genus Cornus. But the red twig species are a deciduous, flowering shrub with skinny, whip-like branches in an upright, spreading shape. Depending on the variety, they grow 6 to 8 feet in height and width.

Most of the year, these plants are reliable space fillers, but not standouts by any measure. In the spring, they have flat clusters of small white flowers. In summer, they have small, sometimes variegated leaves (greenish-silver edged in white) and waxy whitish berries that don’t add much to the landscape. The berries’ main attraction, not incidental, is that birds enjoy eating them.

Although a few varieties have foliage that turns reddish or purplish in the fall, most simply go brown and lose their leaves. If not for their winter display of color, few people would bother to plant them.

But their modest winter gift is superb. The bare crimson branches shine against a backdrop of glistening snow, or even a drab backdrop of winter-killed lawn grass. They develop their brightest color as winter drags on toward spring. Fresh snow adds a soft touch to their branches; an ice storm transforms the branches into dazzling wands of color (the silver lining to a weather event that turns your driveway into a luge track).

There are three red-twig species. Cornus alba, known as Tatarian dogwood, is native to Asia; Cornus sericea, known as red osier dogwood, is native to North America; and Cornus sanguinea, known as bloodtwig dogwood, is native to Europe. Some members of the red osier family sport bright yellow twigs. A popular yellow cultivar is ‘Flaviramea.'

Red twig dogwoods are not difficult to grow. They are hardy in USDA zones 3-8. They tolerate wet conditions, particularly the red osier species, which is often found in swampy areas. They prefer full sun, where their colors develop the most intensity, but they can take some shade. Their spreading root systems make them ideal for erosion control on slopes. They are not too picky about soil conditions, but they do best in acidic, humus-rich soil.

Since the bright winter color is most pronounced on young stems, pruning is necessary to keep the shrubs at their full glory. This is best done in early spring by cutting back about one-third of the thickest, oldest stems. Or, you can cut the whole plant down to about a foot once every three or four years.

The shrubs have their greatest impact when massed in groups. A stand of red twig and yellow twig dogwoods looks even more spectacular than a single color alone. Make sure you plant them where you can enjoy looking at them from indoors.

Rhododendrons and new plants for the garden

Saturday and Sunday, Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston will offer a couple of informative presentations that inspire gardeners to get ready for the new season. On Saturday, 2 to 3 p.m., Joseph Bruso will talk about the diversity of foliage and flowers in the genus Rhododendron, and many of the species and hybrids that perform well in New England. On Sunday, 2:30 to 3:30 p.m., Warren Leach, landscape horticulturist and award-winning garden designer, will discuss plants and planting combination to extend your garden enjoyment throughout the seasons. Both talks are free with admission.

Crystals and snowflakes

The Hitchcock Center for the Environment in Amherst offers science and nature programs for children and their families on the second Saturday of the month, from 10 to 11 a.m. On Saturday, the subject will be crystals and snowflakes. Free; groups of six or more should call ahead. Registration is appreciated. Hitchcockcenter.org

Winter nature walk on snowshoes

It’s time to get out your snowshoes for a wonderful winter walk at the Quabbin. On Feb 17, from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., naturalist John Green will lead a walk in one of his favorite habitats for snowshoeing. He’ll take hikers off trail and down to the water looking for signs of all the animals and birds active through the winter. This is a magical time to visit the reservoir. Bring your own snowshoes; there will be a few pairs to borrow if needed. Members: $15, nonmembers: $20. Directions provided with registration. Go to: hitchcockcenter.org for more information and to register. Snow date: Feb. 24

Mickey Rathbun can be reached at foxglover8@gmail.com.